How To Be There

David Aloi

Seek out a friend in a tough situation that calls for immediate attention. Meet this friend at a coffee shop, an around-the-corner kind, modest, nothing baroque or posh, but rather one named after a one-syllable man: Jon's or Ken's. Wear your red and black checkered flannel shirt, thick and cottony, but wear it as a jacket, and throw on a tee shirt underneath, bland in color, beige or plain white, nothing exciting, you are not on stage tonight. Pants do not matter as you will be sitting, your legs hidden from view.

The time is early evening, post-rush hour hustle. The sidewalks bear less weight, but your arrival is important, your weight is needed. Show up at Pete's fifteen minutes before this friend. Swing the heavy door open as if it were not heavy at all but made of construction paper or pillow feathers. Look at the other customers looking at you and how strong you are, full of such will. Let them see you this way for only a second or two, then become like wallpaper; lower your head to emphasize humility.

The chatter should be moderate, proper nouns mostly, of musicians, politicians, authors, pop stars; they whip by as you head toward your seat. Music, the neo-thereal-folk-grass sort, tinny violin, accordion, maybe tambourine, spills out of the speakers. Sit beneath these speakers. Music is important, contemplative. If conversation gaps arise, the music will fill the lulls with milky rhythm.

Throw something into the booth, maybe the shirt, to establish territory and consider a coffee or tea. You have met this friend in a coffee shop before. Picture what this friend was drinking. Was it brimming with foam like a cappuccino or a thinner glaze like a latte? Do you recall a string hung over the lip of a mug like a tea? If you can remember, order it. It's sure to stay hot, at least until this friend arrives. This friend will appreciate the gesture, even if it's not what they anticipated having. This friend will smile at your thoughtfulness and it will serve as immediate reassurance before this friend even has a chance to tell you why the world has found this friend so down. This is what you want.

 It is just a few minutes before this friend is set to arrive. Wrap your hands around the mug of tea and let the heat warm your palms. You notice a ring of water beneath it, probably fresh out of the dishwasher. Swirl the mug around. Draw your name in cursive through the water a couple times while you wait. Better yet, draw this friend's name. Keep your focus where it should be. If you run out of water, ask the barista for a glass of tap-it's free, or at least, it should be. There are a lot of couples here tonight, boys and girls, boys and boys, girls and girls. Notice the way the world works like this: in pairs, the assembly of two humans, sharing their dealings of the day, their favorite building in the city or the consideration of a tattoo on their rib cage, their mother's maiden name and father's oversized Adam's apple, why cigarettes are the least of their worries at this point and the ongoing desire to learn how to change a tire-the need for this assembly.      

 One particular couple, sitting in the booth over, is deeply into something. It is difficult to decipher the exact words they are exchanging but they are so involved, it's as though he is singing to her and she is singing to him. The boy, with a foreign face of angular features: a pointed nose like the fin of a shark, lips chapped and thin, has his arms crossed at the wrists. He is sitting across from a blonde girl with pins in her hair holding together a French braid, eyes barely blinking. His hands cross the table into her space. He is close and without even sitting next to her. Once this friend is sitting across from you, make your hands do this.

When you were young, elementary school-ish, you thought the word "tough" only applied to people with muscles and not to a situation, you had little worry: a splinter, choosing between blue or red bubble gum, cutting the lawn, the definite possibility of someone or something in your closet or under your bed at night. There was no urgent need for a companion because you had parents, lovely parents, who were your support. They used the tweezers, they chose blue, they bought you the soccer ball night-light and placed it at your bedside. The other children, on the street or in school, were a source of entertainment, like a top spinning before you.

"Can you come with us to the playground?" they asked at your doorstep, tiny fingers pointing in all directions the merriment was happening.

"I think," you said. "Let me ask my parents."

 "Hurry up, it's gonna be fun," they assured you.

 "I will.  I can't wait to have fun!" you said.

The swings were connected to that metal bar so high up, high like a building.  You stood between the two chains, rusted on every other link. You laughed and howled and wound your body around and around until you were forced to sit in the black rubber seat. The sand beneath you was deep brown and coarse. You dug your foot in to anchor yourself but this was not enough. The other kids held onto your shoulders to ground you with their weight and you counted: three, two, one. And they let you go and off you went, spinning, spinning, spinning. The chains unwound as two strands of a helix might. And you laughed and howled as you flew.   

Keep an eye out for this friend. Every so often glance at the door when you see it open with a look of excitement, then feel minor disappointment when it's not this friend, because if you keep doing this, eventually it will be this friend and this friend will be just as excited to see you. This friend should be here any minute. Begin gathering your thoughts, first clear your head, think of black space, nothingness, then think of the opposite, color, think of those thick Crayola markers and the way they color things in, full and luscious, ink oozing out of them. This is how the conversation will go; it's something you can't control. There will be things to say and then there will be nothing.

Pull the keys from your pocket and swing them around. This is casual; you are alone but won't be for long, this friend is on their way. An older woman who resembles your grandmother walks by and glances at you sitting and twirling keys on your index finger. If you need to, tell her someone is coming and you are not going to be alone for long. Tap your watch and shrug. She continues to the door. Wonder where she is headed. Use your house key to carve something small onto the bench you're sitting on, maybe three or four words. Add the date so when years and years have passed and you return from the city to this town for your second cousin's funeral, you can come to this coffee shop with a crossword puzzle and sit at this booth and remember this day. Carve it on the corner of the bench near the wall and don't get in trouble. 

A gust of warm air hits the back of your neck. Turn your head. This friend walks through the door.

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